In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count.” So says our reading from the book of Revelation. In our religious tradition, there are a few days a year we are expected to set aside whatever drama and worry we may have going on any particular day, in order to be happy together for something that we didn’t earn, but something that has been given us as a great gift. We remember and honor today, the faithful departed. All Saints Day causes us to remember the faithful dead, but more than that, it calls us to celebrate their lives.
What I like most about All Saints Day is that on this day the dead can still cast their vote in the holy democracy that is the church. Their aspirations and dreams and wisdom carry on and in no way are defeated by death, which–despite everything–does not win among us Christians. It is the day to remember those Christians who have gone before us, those who have touched our lives either when they were alive or dead. These people in many ways taught us what we know and gave shape to our world. Although we probably take it all for granted most of the time, our human world is populated with ideas and achievements that they thought up, fought for, and suffered for. It is an almost unthinkable thought, that the vast majority of us live in homes we did not build, were educated in schools that were there before we were ever named, go to hospitals that already existed before we ever knew we needed them, worship in churches that were already here before we ever needed them, and so on and so on. Just how much do we owe the saints of ages past? Who can measure it? Who can say anything but “Thank you.”
It is also a day to remind ourselves of who we are, because sometimes we forget. This is especially needed in 2020 where each day has brought it own crisis, and, all of us, are having trouble remembering who we are not in this crisis. We need something solid, solid like our stone church. I suggest that the building itself has the capacity to remind us of who we are as the descendants of those who built it. Our distinctive stone church has not always been what it appears to be today. In the mid 1950s All Saints’ faced a crisis created by the fact that our town of Chelmsford changed dramatically at that time and All Saints found itself becoming very different than it was in its founding almost a century earlier just after the American Civil War. The construction of modern highways brought Chelmsford within the orbit of the City of Boston and led to rapid growth. The large, unforgettable stone, worship space that we know and love, that you see part of behind me, did not yet exist.
The parish had always met in what we call the chapel. There was an Easter Sunday where they did five services in a row filling the chapel each time even with chairs in the isle. It was not sustainable and they stepped out in faith to design and build a much larger church adjoining the smaller one. Of course, they worried whether or not there would be enough money to build it, they proceeded in faith. In their words, it was to be “a building that is contemporary enough to be intensely relevant for 1961 and coming generations. At the same time, it is [to be] traditional enough, and recaptures enough of the flavor of the present church to be right at home next to it.” Sixty years later, we unanimously agree that they succeeded marvelously. Their faithfulness, courage, and endurance in their crisis was to our great gain as they reinvented All Saints’ Church for a new generation.
Here is the best part! They built it out of stone to match the old, original, church. Where did they get stones to match? What store sells those stones? It has been said that New England “doesn’t kid around; it wears its bones [on the] outside” (John Updike). As any of you who have ever dug into the New England soil and hit hard rock, our feet here rest on granite not on wishy washy mud. Anyone who owns property in New England owns piles of rocks, often piled along the property lines. I once served a parish that had a fairly large colonial cemetery and one of the tombstones was this large oddly shaped stone with the name Sarah Fuller carved into it. When I inquired about it, I was told that Sarah Fuller had insisted that a stone be brought from her own property to be serve as her gravestone. I had never thought of that as an option before, but the moment I heard it, it seemed to me to be a very New England sort of thing to do.
Much like Sarah Fuller, the parishioners of All Saints’ brought stones from their own property to build the new church out of the same local stone the old church was made of. If you have ever moved such stones, you know that they are unwieldy and heavy. The very stones speak the message of what they could accomplish together and the church stands today as a monument to their shared effort where everyone contributed what they could.
That generation could look at the wall behind me and pick out the stones they contributed. We still have some of them with us and it is an excellent longtimer All Saints’ brag to have contributed stones to the church. It is kind of like the way you all are going to brag one day about carrying All Saints’ on your backs at great personal cost through the global pandemic. Some rector of All Saints’ on some future All Saints Day will remind that congregation how this church once pulled together during the global pandemic to keep as many of us as possible alive and preserve our cherished church for future generations.
The constant activity of All Saints’ parish for more than a century and a half has been only for the good. Few things are more spiritual than this material space, this religious space. There is nothing to be cynical about here. We don’t have to choose between the spiritual and the material, but here we see them joined together not in contradiction. Here spiritual yearning expands into material space for the benefit of all. That is a great gift. That is something to celebrate. And that is something that is worth handing on to future generations in the same way it was given to us.
The name of our parish testifies to that Spirit of cooperation and togetherness. Most churches are named after this saint or that one. More churches than any other around the world at their founding choose St. Mary as their patron Saint. We Anglicans are particularly fond of St. Paul, but we also have our St. Peter’s, our St. Luke’s, our St. John’s, our St. Andrew’s, our St. Thomas’s. I imagine the long ago founders of our parish debating which saint would be the patron saint of our parish. Who was it that first suggested, can’t we have all of them? Couldn’t we invoke for our inspiration and protection all the saints and have an All Saints’ Church? We still do not pick and choose. We were for that “all” in past crises and we are for that “all” in the current ones. We have all the saints at our side and in the Spirit of All Saints’ we continue to ask everyone to bring your stone to our church and together it will amount to something far greater than what we would otherwise achieve alone.
Today’s reading from the book of Revelation describes, “a great multitude of saints that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” We are told that they all cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne.” All Saints Day is about learning what God did through them when they gave all they had, and what God can do through us even in our current suffering. It is a day celebrating how generation after generation has discovered for itself value and meaning surpassing anything available by their own efforts and resources. At the limits of the human experience and their own efforts, they found that that was not all there is. They were not hopeless or alone.
As we think of all the Saints of God, let us be truly grateful for what they sacrificed so that we could be here today, and may our faith be renewed, our resolve strengthened, and our feet be placed on solid rock, as the God who has been faithful to each generation forms in us the expectation that the good news of Christ will carry us through our current troubles, both now and forever more. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet